Former DA leader Tony Leon. Picture: Ayanda Ndamane

Cape Town - The DA could not be “just a patronage machine” that scooped up disaffected ANC supporters and should provide an alternative that was “not just another version of the ruling party”, its former leader said on Wednesday.

Tony Leon returned late last year from his posting as South Africa’s ambassador in Argentina.

“Obviously politics is crucially about numbers. But as the party grows and as some outsize personalities, some carrying a great deal of baggage… are attracted to its ranks, just be sure that the welcome mat is also marked with some clear red lines which old and new recruits cross at their peril.”

Outlining key challenges facing the party he led from 1999 until handing over to Helen Zille in 2007, Leon said the DA’s core constituency - minorities - was diminishing.

“The last election revealed that the DA has unchallenged support among minority voters. The last census showed that this is a reducing bloc of supporters,” he said.

Growing DA support in a “new market”, among the majority of South Africans, while at the same time “retaining faith with core values and old voters” was not a new dilemma facing the party, but was now “more urgent”.

The DA “overwhelmingly occupied” the opposition space and faced no credible challengers, Leon said. “And the argument that liberal ideas and policies are somehow a ‘whites only’ proposition is nonsense. But in order to attract more votes from black South Africans the party has to close the distance between itself and the majority, something which has far more to do with tone, familiarity, identity and other intangibles and less to do with objective policy propositions.”

There would be “a temptation to soft-pedal certain propositions in order not to scare off new potential voters”, Leon said, warning that “culture” was a “political quicksand”.

“If I were the current DA leadership… I would not get into a bargain of ‘Africanness’ et al. Make your point and move on,” he said.

A second challenge was whether the DA could retain its traditional identity and core values, and attract new supporters, or whether there would be an “automatic blurring of vision and values” as its support grew.

More competitive politics - a larger opposition and smaller government - was “profoundly important” for the country’s “democratic health”, as was providing a “clear alternative” to the ANC with vision and policies that offered “something beyond just ‘the ANC minus corruption and with good delivery’”.

Political Bureau